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The Republic | azcentral.com
Wed Mar 20, 2013

Michael Rolack never heard the gunshot, only the screams of his grandson’s fiancee.

Running to the front yard of his Phoenix home, he saw the body of 28-year-old Nicholas Rolack, a Marine Corps veteran, who had just put a bullet in his head.

Thinking back on that March 7, 2012, night, Michael’s voice catches in grief.

“Just two hours before he killed himself, we had been watching a movie. I knew he was having a hard time after coming back from Iraq, but he wouldn’t talk. He wouldn’t share nothin’,” Michael said. “His hurt must have been so big that he couldn’t get around it. Maybe he felt like he had to do it to keep from hurting us.”

Suicide among veterans and active military members is not a new problem, but the number of incidents has risen significantly in the past decade, reaching what former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta described as “epidemic” levels. His summer 2012 statement to Congress coincided with efforts by the military and the Department of Veterans Affairs to ramp up suicide-prevention programs.

From 2000 to 2010, the number of veteran suicides rose from 20 to 22 per day, the VA reported last month. The total grew from an estimated 7,300 suicides in 2000 to an estimated 8,030 in 2010, for a difference of 730.

The trend is slightly up in Arizona, too. According to the Arizona Department of Health Services, there were 228 suicides among veterans in 2009 and 247 in 2012.

A separate report by the Department of Defense revealed that the number of suicides among active-duty troops also has risen, from 301 in 2011 to almost one a day in 2012.

The numbers are increasing even as veterans have access to more help than ever before. The VA and other groups have improved counseling services and launched other programs, including social-media initiatives.

Over the past few years, tens of thousands of people have participated in online chats or sent text messages to share information or seek help.

In 2007, after Congress passed the Joshua Omvig Suicide Prevention Act designed to assist veterans and members of the military, the VA established the Veterans’ Crisis Line (1-800-273-8255, push 1).

And after a presidential executive order in August, the VA increased hotline staffing by 50 percent.

To date, it has handled about 740,000 calls and claims 26,000 rescues of suicidal veterans.

All VA medical centers and large outpatient facilities employ suicide-prevention coordinators, and the VA has launched a yearlong public-awareness campaign, “Stand By Them,” to educate families and friends.

Experts say job loss, relationship and money problems, violence, drug use and post-traumatic stress disorder often are catalysts for suicide.

Even the most hardened individuals can break down when the normal life they expected doesn’t happen, said David Klein, suicide-prevention coordinator for the VA Health Care System in Phoenix. He urges counselors to validate without being judgmental.

“You don’t want anything to sound rote. You want to show empathy and concern, not like you’re reading something,” said Klein, a licensed social worker. “You don’t tell them, ‘Suck it up, Marine.’ This is the worst thing that has happened to this veteran.”

Danny Guckenburg, a counselor at the Phoenix Vet Center near Central Avenue and Osborn Road, said some veterans are reluctant to seek help for mental-health concerns.

“A lot of them view that because they didn’t come back with an amputation, they don’t think they deserve help,” he said. “There is a need to validate that their wounds are just as important. This is the place they can open up about the pain they are experiencing. They can get a sense of hope that is missing.”

Christopher Hughes of Phoenix has been using the services at the Phoenix Vet Center since May 2012. The Army sergeant, who enlisted 10 years ago, said he tried several times to kill himself. The first attempt occurred on Christmas 2008, while he was still on active duty at Fort Lewis in Tacoma, Wash.

“I had hurt my back and was depressed about life,” Hughes said. “I found myself on the Puget Sound. I put a 9 millimeter in my mouth, pulled the trigger and nothing happened. I got mad at the weapon and threw it in the water.”

He later tried slicing his wrists. Another time, he combined drugs and alcohol. None of his efforts succeeded, he said, because he was “probably too drunk to do it right.”

Hughes, 29, said his attempts came when he was overcome by feelings of worthlessness and anger. “You break the threshold, and it becomes so intense, you think it’s better to end it,” he said.

Now serving in the Army National Guard, Hughes hopes to assemble volunteer vets who will help each other 24/7.

Rolack wishes his grandson had reached out. “I’m a Vietnam vet, and I have PTSD,” he said. “If there was anything related to war that bothered him, I thought he would be able to talk to me. He was a beautiful person, very intelligent. And he’s never going to return. He’s never coming back.”

Rolack knows many people get angry when someone like Nicholas, who had four young children, takes his own life.

“But there is nothing to be angry about. That person is struggling, and we don’t know that pain, and I pray I never do.”
 
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